Originally created 10/05/99

Album brings Patsy Cline's voice, music back



NEW YORK -- Thirty-six years after her death, Patsy Cline is a sonic pioneer again.

She's singing, her voice clear and true, in duets with some people she never heard of -- Bob Carlisle, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Glen Campbell -- and one person she undoubtedly did know, Willie Nelson.

The doctored duets were made possible by new technology with the potential for embellishing -- or desecrating, depending on your point of view -- the work of countless musicians who are no longer able to speak for themselves.

"I think people want to hear the superstars and icons of music the way they actually were," said Michael Blakey, producer of the new Patsy Cline Duets album. "With recording technology the way it is, you couldn't hear what they were capable of doing. You were only getting 50 percent of the story."

The project recalls Natalie Cole's duet with her late father, Nat "King" Cole, and Frank Sinatra's recordings with contemporary musicians. Ms. Cline's voice is separated electronically from the music made at the time, sonically cleaned to sound clearer, and added to new musical backing tracks.

Her vocals sound as though they were recorded yesterday, not nearly four decades ago. This process was never before available for work recorded in monaural, which Ms. Cline and most of her contemporaries used in the days before stereophonic sound became widely available, Mr. Blakey said.

Patsy Cline was a prime candidate for a posthumous duet. Her music, a blend of country and pop, is appreciated more now than it was before she died at the age of 30, in a Tennessee plane crash. A disc of her greatest hits, including Crazy, I Fall to Pieces and Walkin' After Midnight, has sold more than 8 million copies.

"She was a passionate singer," said Mr. Carlisle, a contemporary gospel singer. "She was one of those singers who had the ability to make you believe every word that she sang was something she lived before she got to the microphone."

Mr. Blakey was approached with the idea by the man who owns the master recordings for half of Ms. Cline's work.

"Patsy Cline is someone I think everybody has to admire," he said. "Her vocal presence, her dynamics and word play were better than anybody. Working with Patsy was like working with Frank Sinatra -- a legend and icon. I couldn't refuse."

Better yet, it was a legend who couldn't argue with his ideas in the studio. Still, Mr. Blakey was apprehensive and sought the blessing of Charlie Dick, Ms. Cline's widower.

Mr. Dick knows that these projects don't always work; a previous effort to meld Ms. Cline's vocals with contemporary music fell flat. "It took two years to break even," he said. "The public didn't want it."

But he was impressed with the sound of Ms. Cline's voice after it had been cleaned up electronically.

Mr. Blakey set out to find duet partners, looking for a combination of young and old. Each artist was given a choice of about three songs. He said no one turned him down, although some record companies wouldn't let their musicians participate.

Although given free reign to use any kind of musical backing he wished, Mr. Blakey said he tried to keep the arrangements as close to the original as possible. He didn't, however, have freedom over which songs to use. He was only allowed to work with master recordings from the less popular first half of Ms. Cline's career. Walkin' After Midnight is the only song on this package a casual fan would recognize.

Willie Nelson wrote Crazy, but he wasn't able to use it for an artificial duet. He chose Life's Railway to Heaven instead.

If the project is successful, Mr. Blakey said he hoped to persuade the owners of Ms. Cline's remaining catalog to make it available for another volume.

Mr. Carlisle said it was eerie to record his vocals and hear Ms. Cline breathing through the recording in his headphones. But he had no hesitation in agreeing to participate.

"It didn't concern me whether or not it would be successful," he said. "To have a duet of me singing with Patsy Cline would make me a hero with my mother. The rest is just gravy."

Word has already spread through the music industry about the technology that made the duets possible. It may open the floodgates: Mr. Blakey said he has already heard from representatives of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, who are interested in sonic cleansings.

Purists cringe at these doctored recordings. There's always the unsettling question of how the affected artists would have regarded alterations to their work. Is it truly fair to do it when they can't do anything about it?

Mr. Blakey expects second-guessers but dismisses their arguments.

"Anybody that says this is the wrong thing to do, well, I don't think they're a true music lover," he said. "This is an appreciation of Patsy and her music. ... This is what everyone said she wanted to sound like."

These recordings are definitely hit-or-miss with country fans, said Robert Oermann, a music historian and author of the upcoming book, Century of Country. Although there doesn't appear to be much anticipation for the Cline project, it's a tribute to her longevity that there's still interest in her music, he said.

"I'm not enthused by it," he said. "I'd rather listen to Patsy, myself. She doesn't need anybody with her."

Mr. Dick said he appreciates contemporary artists wanting to record with Ms. Cline. He likes how the final project sounds and stands to profit if it's successful, but he acknowledges that some fans of her music won't like it.

So what would Patsy think?

In answering that question, her husband recalls how Ms. Cline was disappointed when many of the songs on the duets project were rejected by the marketplace when they were first made.

"I think she'd be sitting back, laughing and not believing it," he said. "At the time, nobody thought much of these songs at all."